I could have gone anywhere — as far away as I wanted. My spouse had given me the gift of solitary retreat; I certainly had enough frequent flyer miles to take to any hemisphere. And my colleagues wholeheartedly supported what could be seen as a monastic form of rehab, a creative top-up.
Twenty years ago, I engaged in a similar solo trek that was intended as a professional “break” from my work at NBC News in New York City. I told my managers that upon my return from India, unless they could come up with an overseas posting for me, I would most likely leave the network. My hubris paid off: soon-after, I was asked to serve as their Middle East producer based in Tel Aviv. Be careful what you push for…
That time away was the beginning of a burning desire to share what I experienced with a larger audience. It was a world before blogs, social media, smartphones. I documented my journey for a just-launched MSNBC.com, which they headlined “A Fortnight with the Multitude” (an earlier version is still up on my first-ever website). This experience would lead to years of pioneering personal storytelling, backpack journalism and bootstrapped documentary filmmaking through emergent digital platforms.
But everything changed on this most recent trip. I eschewed transcontinental travel, metal detectors, even four-wheeled vehicles — along with social media, e-mail, news and sustained human contact. Constrained by weight on my e-bike, I packed the bare minimum, strapped my guitar to my back and took the Clipper from downtown Seattle to downtown Victoria. Then I biked twenty miles north to Swartz Bay and took a ferry to Mayne Island, circulating around British Columbia’s southern Gulf Islands over the two weeks that followed.
I wasn’t intent on any grand ultimatums or revelations this time. Instead, I ended up seeking stillness. I read a lot of books, and enjoyed a lot of downloaded shows — from the guilty pleasure of Supernatural to the towering inspiration of Netflix’ documentary series Abstract. I also played a lot of guitar, which led to this rough sketch of a composition for my son Hendrix, recorded outside my forest cabin on Pender Island:
And here’s what I noticed: I was no longer pursuing that dopamine thrill of online recognition of my whereabouts, fortitude or cleverness. In my sparing conversations with ferry staff, servers and cashiers I told no one what I did professionally unless specifically asked. I handed out exactly one business card. It sometimes got hard, especially when I missed my family. But it was my own very necessary version of cold turkey, something I was feeling out as I went along. Ultimately, I enjoyed the temporary freedom of deriving any sense of self from my reflection in the eyes of others.
Given this liberation, I was very selfish in my daily choices. I went with whatever occurred to me at the time. I didn’t have to do anything I didn’t want to do. So in hindsight, it makes sense that my spontaneously-chosen morning music playlist consisted typically of icons who colored outside the lines: Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Joni Mitchell.
I was a free man in Paris
I felt unfettered and alive
Nobody was calling me up for favors
No one’s future to decide
(Joni Mitchell Free Man in Paris)
This led to my devouring a Joni biography in one day (thank you Seattle Public Library e-book lending system!). She’s a superlative musician who developed unorthodox guitar tunings, which only fed her unique worldview. I liked how Joni described her need to regularly pull the rug from out under herself: “If you’re only working off of what you know then you can’t grow. It’s through trial and error that discovery is made.”
Much further into my professional life now in Seattle than when I made that brash stand so long ago in New York, I do feel the need to stay in the flow. As one of the world-famous designers from the Abstract documentary series observed, there’s always a fear of running out of ideas. “You measure yourself against a lucky moment.” But the best way to counteract that fear is to practice daily the thing you do best — no differently from what an athlete or a musician must do to maintain peak performance. And I’m learning that it’s ideal to do so free from a need to impress someone else.
Recommended books from my retreat:
Thank You For Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide for Thriving in the Age of Accelerations –Thomas Friedman
Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t — Simon Sinek
Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are — Seth Stephens
Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging — Sebastian Junger
Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness — Peter Godfrey-Smith
The Heart of the Sea — Nathaniel Philbrick
Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words — Malka Marom
A New Earth — Eckhart Tolle
And I read this one before my trip — it’s so relevant to the graduate program I direct that it is now the “Common Book” for our incoming cohort of students:
The Hitmakers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction — Derek Thompson